“Every era has its own defining drug.” – Margaret Talbot
With the high availability of so-called “cognitive enhancing drugs” like Ritalin, Adderall, and Provigil on college campuses, students everywhere are facing the choice of whether or not to take non-prescribed medications to help them “perform better” in school. Studies show that anywhere between 20-35% of college students have used one of these medications without a prescription in their college career, but an informal survey would likely reveal an even higher percentage, as the use of these medications is on the rise. Many claim these drugs help them concentrate, study longer, and juggle more tasks by creating more productive hours in the day. Others rely on them in a crunch, during midterms, finals, or the night before a big test, when the clock is ticking and assignments are due, and there doesn’t seem to be enough time –or brain power–to get everything that needs to get done, done.
The question of whether to use these “cognitive enhancing drugs” poses many ethical concerns– some rooted in the very immediate and direct impact of these drugs on the developing brains of young people, and some rooted more in what these drugs say philosophically about the direction our society is headed in. And with the rate of use tripling within the past ten years, along with the fact that dozens of new cognitive stimulants are currently in the pharmaceutical pipeline, it seems an important issue to examine. Should we embrace the use of these drugs, in hopes of them making us smarter, more efficient, and more productive? Or should we be wary of using them, concerned with the risks that they pose not only to our brains, but to our own personal and societal values?
I think before launching into the ethical arguments surrounding the use of these medications, it’s important to consider the context within which they are used, particularly on college campuses. Why do students feel compelled to take these stimulants, and why has there been such a boom in their use? What kind of environment fuels the perceived need for these medications, originally developed for disorders of attention, but now so widely used by the general public?
One idea to consider is the general trend our society is taking towards having attentional problems across the board. Cognitive stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin were originally developed to treat Attention Hyperactivity Disorder, a disorder characterized in part by inattentivity, distractibility, and trouble staying focused; but in our era of technological multi-tasking, where everyone’s attention seems strained, are we all suffering from an attention deficit?
In his article “In Defense of Distraction,” Sam Anderson suggests we are experiencing a “crisis of attention”: and that “A quintessentially Western solution to the attention problem—one that neatly circumvents the issue of willpower—is to simply dope our brains into focus.”
Yet, no one needs an article or even an official decree from a psychologist to identify our deteriorating attention spans. Just look around: most of us can hardly sit for any sustained period of time without checking our cell phones and our e-mail; we like things to be fast, and when they aren’t, we get frustrated. We expect instant communication and instant feedback; we even start getting antsy a few minutes into that YouTube video. Our technologies have conditioned us to expect small bits of information, in quick surges, whether it be through Twitter, Facebook status updates, or one or two-sentence e-mail responses quickly transcribed on a Blackberry or iPhone. Even our news is increasingly transmitted in these small, quick packages. Across the board, technology is making things quicker and faster, causing us to spend less attention on each individual thing as we try to spend our attention on more things.
Indeed, we are currently experiencing an explosion of information in today’s “information age” where our cognitive loads are being challenged more than they ever have before. Could this be said to drive the need for these medications? Just consider what an average student might be doing while trying to study: surfing the internet, checking e-mail, text-messaging, breezing through Facebook updates, listening to music, checking out a YouTube video and (let’s not forget) trying to study. With all of these inputs vying for our attention, with so much information to master, is it any wonder that we have a hard time staying focused?
Other factors surely contribute to this trend: the need for stimulants likely also stems from the immense amount of pressure students feel to get their work completed, in a time when school is more and more competitive, people are more high achieving, and there seems so much to do, and not enough time to do it in. Overwhelmed with school projects, balancing a social life, and the pressure to memorize all those Biology terms by your midterm can be daunting– sometimes, it might even seem impossible to get by without a little bit of help. A student from a medical school chat forum went as far as to say it’s impossible to juggle school these days without the help of these drugs and live a normal life:
“The only people who get through the (med school) program I’m in either use stimulants or have no social life whatsoever. There is no other way. This is just the natural outcome of students being expected to memorize everything. The choice we’re being given is use drugs or fail.”
The pressure to juggle all of this academic pressure is certainly one driving force in the use of these drugs; but other students may use the medications less as a way to be a top, high-achieving student and more as a way to manage the day to day life of being in college, doing, well, everything college students do. In her article “Brain Gain” for The New Yorker Margaret Talbot interviewed a Harvard student with the pseudonym Alex, who said:
“I don’t think people who take Adderall are aiming to be the top person in the class…At the most basic level, they aim to do better than they would have otherwise.” He went on, “Everyone is aware of the fact that if you were up at 3 A.M. writing this paper it isn’t going to be as good as it could have been. The fact that you were partying all weekend, or spent the last week being high, watching ‘Lost’—that’s going to take a toll.”
Another student from the medical school chat forum chimed in,
“People use these medications because they’re lazy, and because they have no study habits. They’re a crutch for people who need a last minute way to get work done, fast.”
These examples seem to represent poles of a spectrum of students who take these medications – those who are seeking a high level of achievement and competitive edge, and those who are scrambling to get their papers done after slacking off all quarter – and of course, there is everyone in between, looking for a brain boost and a quick-fix way to get some help getting their work done. In each case, the medication seems to offer a way of helping the student’s manage their workloads – including school, extra-curriculars, and even our attention-straining technologies – by giving them the opportunity to cram more work into their day. But regardless of the reason, it is clear from the demand for these medications that there are people increasingly looking for ways to keep up – to pay attention, to stay on top, or even just to keep afloat. And so the question one might ask, from an ethical perspective, is: “If there is a medication out there that might make it a little bit more manageable, why not take it?”
There are a number of arguments to consider when trying to address this question:
Are stimulants a tool for achievement?
In the scientific journal Nature in 2008, Director of The Center for Law and Biosciences at Stanford University Henry Greely and his colleagues published an article entitled, “Towards The Responsible Use of Cognitive Enhancing Drugs by the Healthy,” promoting the view that using medications like Ritalin and Adderall would allow us to become more focused, productive, and attentive, and that we should therefore embrace their use, not for people suffering from ADHD but for anyone who is looking for a cognitive kick.
“We should welcome new methods of improving brain function,” Greely wrote. “In a world in which human work spans and life spans are increasing, cognitive enhancement tools – including the pharmacological—will be increasingly useful for improved quality of life and extended work-productivity, as well as to stave off normal and pathological age-related cognitive declines. Safe and effective cognitive enhancers will benefit both the individual and society.”
“Why would you want an upper limit on the intellectual capabilities of a human being?” Nicholas Selzter, interviewed in Margaret Talbot’s article, adds. “Think about the complexity of the intellectual tasks that people need to accomplish today. If we had a tool to enable more people to understand the world at a greater level of sophistication, how can we prejudice ourselves against the notion?”
Indeed, some studies have demonstrated the benefits these drugs can provide. Yesavage et al showed that pilots performed better during a month long trial of 5 mg of donepezil (Aricept, a stimulant) in flight simulation tasks, particularly in responding to emergencies. Other studies have shown that these drugs can, in some cases, help people learn better: “Amphetamines in small doses can promote neural plasticity and accelerate motor learning,” notes Anjan Chatterjee, in his article “Cosmetic Neurology” and other stimulants have been shown to increase performance on memory and learning tasks. Chatterjee poses the question, “Could they be used in normal subjects at the time of skilled motor learning, such as swimming, playing piano, or skiing, to increase learning potential?”
When Hank Greely presented his argument at Santa Clara last year, he put forth the idea that these drugs should be viewed as “tools” that can help people perform better, much like other tools we use to think better, for example, like a computer can serve as an instrument to help execute tasks more readily and efficiently and eyeglasses can help people see better. Some external tool that provides a leg up in studying, he says, is not much different from a medication that does the same thing; and if both can help us think, memorize, and perform better, than why close off the option of Ritalin just because it’s a “drug”?
“No one gets very worried if I enhance my eyesight by using binoculars, or if I enhance my memory using writing,” he said. “We don’t worry about “Google” as somehow an inappropriate enhancement. We get more worried when we are changing our bodies and our changing our brains, but I’m not really sure we should be. No one gets bent out of shape about the idea that people are using reading glasses as an evil enhancement because they are a tool.”
Greely suggests that we condone other types of “neural enhancement” with no moral problem. He writes, “research has identified beneficial neural changes engendered by exercise, nutrition, and sleep as well as instruction and reading…. cognitive enhancement drugs seem morally equivalent to other, more familiar enhancements.”
And later, puts forth the question directly: “Given the many cognitive-enhancing tools we accept already, from writing to laptop computers, why draw the line here (at giving medication), and say, thus far but no further?”
Greely’s argument essentially asks us to consider, why should influencing the brain directly using medication be considered different from using other external aids to help you study?
I think the argument is an interesting one, for it asks us to determine which technologies we consider appropriate to use to help us be more efficient and productive, and which ones we don’t. Are we to view cognitive enhancing drugs merely as a tool that aids with a task like focus or memorization in the same way a tutor or making flashcards can help us memorize information? And if these medications are merely a tool, should they be allowed in the same way students are permitted to use other types of study aids? Should students come to rely on these medications with the same familiarity and comfort level that they rely on using a calculator on a math test? Should they then be readily available to all students who want to use them?
His argument also raises the question, Why do we accept some forms of enhancement and not others? Why do we condone a laptop or calculator as an appropriate tool, but not a medication? Does it have to do with the differences in their direct impact on the brain? If so, then is there a moral difference between using a prescription medication and using large amounts of caffeine, which could elicit similar mental and physiological effects?
Another argument related to this idea of using stimulants as tools for achievement is whether it is “fair” for people to enhance their thinking using these drugs. Is taking medications to achieve better simply another way to get one’s work done, or is it a form of cheating?
Would it be fair? Is taking a stimulant a form of cheating?
Do cognitive stimulants give an unfair advantage to some students over others? Does it create an unjust environment where those who can afford or are willing to take the drugs are given an unfair leg up over those who don’t? Is it “fair” that some students can afford to purchase such enhancements when others can’t?
In her article Brain Gain, Margaret Talbot writes,
“At many colleges, students have begun calling the off-label use of neuroenhancers a form of cheating. Writing last year in the Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper of the University of Virginia, a columnist named Greg Crapanzano argued that neuroenhancers “create an unfair advantage for the users who are willing to break the law in order to gain an edge. These students create work that is dependent on the use of a pill rather than their own work ethic.”
The question about cheating inevitably draws an analogy between using cognitive steroids to boost the mind and using steroids in athletic to boost physical strength. We generally acknowledge that using steroids in sports is unfair — it’s even illegal: so is doping our minds and different from doping our bodies?
Scientist Anders Sandberg says there should be no distinction, and that “cognitive doping” should be treated much like steroids are treated in sports: “If the goal of education is a competition for high grades, then the drugs would be a kin to doping and only add an unfair positional advantage to users…”
Yet others disagree, claiming that taking these medications is no different from other techniques students use to try to do better in school – invoking an argument similar to Greely. One student writing about this topic said,
“Taking a study drug, while unhealthy and risky, should neither be considered illegal nor unethical…it’d be akin to saying studying for extra hours is somewhat unfair. How a person stays up has always been private business and varies person to person…Taking a study drug (should be) no more illegal than taking caffeine. Those who can afford to do more, get more. This is far from cheating, which is getting what you didn’t work for. Debating whether drugs are fair is to debate whether we should compete at all.”
I think this argument is important to consider. Would the advantage given to those who are willing to take the drug be unfair over those who are unwilling to take the drugs? And would people start feeling coerced into taking the drugs if that was the only way to achieve at that level, much like athletes feel the pressure to take steroids in order to compete at the same level? Extending it out, one might ask, what would happen from a distributive justice perspective if wealthy people have access to these cognitive drugs but people who can’t afford them don’t? Would the gap between the rich and the poor widen?
Is there value in hard work that is undermined by using these drugs?
Another interesting perspective to consider is what role these drugs play in our conceptions of personhood. Have you ever had the experience of working so genuinely hard on something, and reaping the great rewards as a result of your genuine hard work? Would this experience be undermined if you had relied on an artificial method of enhancement – a drug – in order to complete it?
Anjan Chatterjee’s article “Cosmetic Neurology” raises this concern, questioning what impact cognitive stimulants have on our concepts of character. He takes the view that taking cognitive stimulants is indeed cheating, and therefore that taking these medications would erode our character. “Getting a boost without doing the work is cheating,” Chaterjee puts forth. “And cheating cheapens us.”
Chatterjee also raises another interesting point, which is that these medications challenge the principle of accomplishing something on one’s own good will. Just like we don’t like it when athletes break records doped up on steroids, Chatterjee says, shouldn’t we hold the same judgment when someone “performs well” on a stimulant? We have long adopted the view that struggling builds character, and that eliminating pain altogether erodes that character. In other words, the genuine hard work we put into things is important, and avenues that circumvent that hard work or augment them unfairly, undermines the entire achievement. This issue seems particularly relevant in academia, where the analogy with steroid use in sports seems apt: would you respect a person less knowing they use a drug to enhance their thinking, much like we are disappointed by an athlete who engages in artificial enhancement? If someone earns an A on a paper written on medication, are they as “worthy” of that A as they would be if they hadn’t taken it?
And one wonders, too, about the value of hard work, and whether it is lost in the midst of a stimulant-driven haze: is it really as valuable an experience to crank out a 10 page paper in one night on Ritalin as it is to work on it over time, sit with it, and truly learn from it?
Another question to consider in regards to personhood and values involves looking more generally at what types of thinking these medications encourage, and whether they are the types of thinking we want to be promoting. If we are to embrace the use of these drugs, then what value judgments are we placing on the idea that this type of alert productivity is necessarily the best type of thinking?
We automatically call medication that stimulates alertness “cognitive enhancement” – but should we? It is well known that stimulants help people to focus, be more attentive, and more alert; yet, calling this type of thinking “cognitive enhancement” is not a technical term but rather a value judgment. Are there “cognitive trade-offs” to these drugs — other valuable ways of thinking that these medications shut out? In creating a focused, attentive state of mind, what cognitive capacities might these drugs be undermining?
Indeed, many neuroscientists suggest that in promoting this type alert, “efficient” thinking, other types of thinking are de-emphasized in the brain. Talbot notes:
“Cognitive psychologists have found that there is a trade-off between attentional focus and creativity. And there is some evidence that suggests that individuals who are better able to focus on one thing and filter out distractions tend to be less creative,” adding, stimulants “facilitate a pinched, unromantic, grindingly efficient form of productivity.”
Jonah Lehrer, a neuroscientist and author of “How We Decide,” adds that these cognitive stimulants can negatively impact creativity and prevent the type of thinking that leads to insightful breakthroughs. To achieve better focus, he says on his blog The Frontal Cortex, there can be a trade off of more creative ways of thinking:
“While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to focus, minimize distractions, and pay attention only to the relevant details, this clenched state of mind may inhibit the sort of creative connections that lead to sudden breakthroughs.”
Many students may relate to this point: those who take these medications talk about how the papers they write on Ritalin or Adderall are long-winded, and obsessive about certain points, perhaps indicating this certain type of thinking that these drugs emphasize over others. The student Alex interviewed in Talbot’s article said, “Often, I’ve looked back at papers I’ve written on Adderall, and they’re verbose. They’re belaboring a point, trying to create this airtight argument, when if you just got to your point in a more direct manner it would be stronger. With Adderall I’d produce two pages on something that could be said in a couple of sentences.”
So, while these drugs may help with memorization and focus, are they limiting the type of thinking that can enhance analysis, creativity, and open-mindedness? Might a student, in thinking they are creating better work on stimulants, actually be cutting themselves off from different, more creative ways of approaching their assignments? And what does it say about a society that is placing value on shutting out these more creative types of thinking, in favor of what Talbot calls “a grindingly efficient form of productivity?”
One wonders if in trying to gain one type of thinking, we would be losing out on another. Hasn’t everyone had the experience of a stroke of insight while falling asleep or taking a shower – times when the mind is not “pinched and attentive”, but precisely the opposite? What effect would medicating the “wandering mind” have on insights that come precisely because the mind is wandering?
Do the risks justify the gains?
A final point to consider is the risks these drugs pose, which are an important feature to examine when looking at any technological tool. Indeed, the argument that stimulants could benefit society should not be presented without a fair look at how they could also limit or pose a risk to society as well. So do the risks of these medications justify the gains?
It is generally accepted that there is a difference between therapy and enhancement — in other words, that there is a moral difference between giving someone a treatment to alleviate suffering caused by a disease and giving someone treatment when they are healthy in order to make them even better. For those who take these medications for attentional disorders, the risks of these medications are considered in balance with the disorder the person is suffering from; one assesses the risks of the medications with the severity of symptoms of ADHD and decides that it is worthwhile to manage the side-effects if the medication alleviates the symptoms of the disorder. But if we proliferate these medications to the general “healthy” public, are the potential benefits of alertness and attentiveness –which don’t necessary to alleviate suffering in any strict sense but are rather just a preferred or “enhanced” way of functioning– worth the potential harm? Is it ethical to take these drugs, intended to treat disorders, purely for the sake of enhancement?
Another idea to consider is at what cost we are willing to enhance ourselves — and whether we accurately assess that cost when pursuing new modes of enhancement. It seems that often when looking at new technologies the potential benefits are lauded and the risks are downplayed, and this issue is no different. Hank Greely’s argument, for example, suggests that we shouldn’t necessarily view Adderall and Ritalin any differently from the way we view glasses that correct our vision: what makes them different, if they are both tools to make us better?
The somewhat obvious response to Greely’s argument is that there are potentially far greater risks to taking these medications than there are to using eyeglasses, or a laptop, or calculators. Indeed, stimulants known side effects include nervousness, headaches, sleeplessness, decreased appetite, and cardiac problems, and are classified as having a high potential for abuse. Increased risk of ideations of suicide, as well as increased cases of cardiac arrest that have led to death have been reported, and have led to the FDA instituting a “black box” warning on most stimulant medications. Many students who take these medications experience abnormal sleep and eating patterns, some not sleeping or eating anything substantial for long periods at a time, and can experience increased anxiety and even stimulant-induced psychosis. And while some who use stimulants casually do so with few side effects, these more serious effects should not be overlooked: for those students who have experienced them, or for parents whose children suffered cardiac deaths or suicide, these effects are not exaggerated or embellished but very real, and important to bring to light.
There seems to exist a view, both because the medications are so popular and because they are not “street drugs” but prescription drugs, that these medications are generally safe to take without one’s own prescription; but this is a powerful misperception. Indeed, prescription medications are not safe merely because they are available through prescription; drugs, prescribed or not, carry with them risks and side effects that can vary from person to person, and in some cases may have drastic effects. Furthermore, taking a prescription medication for which you yourself don’t have a prescription –sharing a prescription with a roommate, or selling pills at the library– can be a dangerous undertaking, particularly when mixed in with a college lifestyle of alcohol and perhaps even other drugs. The toxicity of stimulants increases significantly when mixed with alcohol; and without a proper discussion with a doctor, a student is at risk to experience these dangers without a proper avenue set up to assess his or her own safety.
Moreover, if we are to advocate the proliferation of these drugs in the widespread population, we must acknowledge that the effects of cognitive stimulating medications in the healthy has never been formally studied. We simply don’t know how these drugs are metabolized by these “healthy,” non-ADHD individuals, for whom these stimulants were unintended and remain untested. And given that we are essentially the first generation of people who are using these medications so widely and for such long periods of time, the long-term risks are still unknown. As Margaret Talbot writes, the effects of these drugs are being discovered “furtively, amongst the increasing number of Americans who are performing daily experiments on their own brains.”
So where do the risks of these drugs factor into the ethical debate? And in light of these issues, it seems important to ask, it is ethical to present the idea that these medications can be a tool for an achievement without acknowledging these very real drawbacks? Advocating the use of these drugs based on the premise that there is no substantive difference between them and a laptop or a pair of eyeglasses, particularly in a school setting, seems not only misinformed, but irresponsible. And one wonders, what impact does promoting these drugs as simply “tools for achievement” without a full acknowledgement of these risks have on a student’s perceptions of taking these medications?
Ultimately, is the argument really simply between choosing to take these medication to become “smarter”, and choosing not to take them and staying the same? Or should it really be presented as a cost-benefit, where the idea of taking these medications to achieve attentiveness and focus is posed alongside the potential for these very real side effects?
Each of these issues – what effect these medications would have for academic competition, what effects they might have on concepts of personhood and thinking, and what the risks are, converges on one question: What might a neuro-enhanced society look like?
If Greely and others are to be believed, we have the opportunity to become smarter, more productive, and more focused by embracing the use of cognitive stimulants. Why try to do less, when we could medicate ourselves to be able to do more? Who, as Nicholas Selzter said, would want an upper limit on productivity?
Yet from a critical perspective, consider some of the potential fall out: might we imagine a time when employers expect—or even require – employees to take these drugs to achieve better? Could hospitals require doctors to take drugs in order to be more alert on their late night shifts? Pilots to take the drugs for long trips? Would the people undergoing surgery, or flying on the planes, come to expect these professionals to take them as well? Could it lead to an environment where students feel coerced or compelled to take drugs to perform better, in the same way some athletes may feel compelled to take steroids to keep up with competition? Would we live in a society where, as Margaret Talbot writes, “we give children academic steroids along with their daily vitamins”?
The idea that we need to ‘enhance’ ourselves is certainly a persuasive one: it is clear we have increasing demands not only on our cognition but on the amount we are physically expected to accomplish in a given day — and it makes sense that we would feel the drive to need to keep up. But as Paul McHugh, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins says in Talbot’s article, “Maybe it’s wrong-footed to fit people into the world, rather than trying to make the world a better place for people.”
A perspective to consider is this: to what future are we committing ourselves? If we continue the effort to achieve, accomplish more, produce more, compete more, the cycle of needing to modify our brains to keep up will continue. It’s almost certain that in ten years from now, the debate will have moved on from the ethical issues of cognitive stimulating medications to the ethical implications of brain implants, or other types of even more invasive brain modifications. Will we want to continue the road to increasing our brain function indefinitely, to keep up with our own technological demands? Is there a point at which we should decide we are busy enough, productive enough, and smart enough now? In reality, the expectations placed upon students and those in the workplace – the demands for a non-stop, blackberry fueled workday, or the barrels of homework on top of extra curricular activities and day-to-day life – will only continue to grow if we as a society allow it too. And our pursuit towards keeping up – whether it be with medications now, or brain implants down the line–will have to continue as well.
I would argue that the use of cognitive stimulants – a technological tool in and of themselves– is intricately tied to our relationship with the increasing use of technology in all areas of our lives, and that to look at the issue of “cognitive enhancement” one would need to examine what effect all of this technology could be said to be having on our lives in general: on our attention spans (those attention spans which we feel compelled to take pills in order to get a handle on); on the belief that a better society is one that is more productive, efficient, and fast; and on the idea that if we can do something, we can always do it faster, and better.
I think Talbot makes an interesting point in her article, about what road we may be paving for ourselves:
“All this may be leading to a kind of society I’m not sure I want to live in,” she writes. “A society where we are even more overworked and driven by technology than we already are and where we have to take drugs to keep up.”
As technology continues to develop, more medications that can influence our brain chemistry –and eventually, more technologies, whether they be brain implants or currently inconceived of brain modifications — will be marketed as the next big thing in cognitive enhancement. One could either say these scenarios present an opportunity to create more advancements using technology, or take the view that we have created a problem through technology that we are trying to solve using more technology. Either way, it seems important to establish firm ethical guidelines about how we are to handle these issues. If not, the use of these technologies will continue to be dictated by social pressure, rather than by principle.
It’s hard to separate out the “ethical” uses of these drugs form their neurological risks; the philosophical principles raised by this issue– as with many issues in technology and health — are somewhat separate from the real life risks these technologies pose. I think it’s important to acknowledge though, particularly in light of articles such as Greely’s which praise “smart drugs” but somewhat dismiss their risks, that the use of cognitive stimulants amongst people – amongst children, students, and those in the workplace– is an ongoing, uncontrolled experiment. And moving forward, it seems important that we frame the argument appropriately. Cognitive stimulants are not “smart pills”– indeed, no one takes Ritalin and becomes Einstein, or learns their entire Biology textbook instantaneously. Rather, cognitive stimulants are drugs that manipulate brain chemistry in a way that, in many people – but certainly not all – increases their ability to focus and pay attention, and often to sleep less and work more. Choosing to encourage the use of these medications is not promoting becoming “smarter,” necessarily, but promoting a type of brain state associated with these effects, among other, less desirable ones as well.
But the question at hand is not merely about whether students, or people in general, should take drugs to become “smarter.” Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is whether the pursuit of these “cognitive enhancing drugs” would really be enhancing our lives at all. Might we look deeper into this debate, and challenge some of the assumptions upon which it rests? Maybe we should challenge the idea that these drugs are enhancing the way we think, by making us more alert and more “grindingly efficient.” Maybe we should challenge whether this type of uber-efficient, speed-driven, hyper-productive society is really the type of society we want to be promoting. Maybe we should focus not so much on the question of whether students should take these medications, but on where the perceived need for these medications arises — on what it says about an academic environment where there is so much pressure to focus, to be more productive, and to get more work done that students feel they need medications just in order to keep up. Maybe we should reframe the debate, and ask ourselves whether it is our conception of what it means to be “enhanced” that is really what needs to be modified.
Consider some of the ethical arguments surrounding the issue of cognitive stimulants: is taking a cognitive stimulant without a prescription unethical? Does it constitute cheating? Should it be viewed as “cognitive doping,” akin to using steroids in athletics? Does it undermine one’s ‘personhood’ by helping one to avoid the challenges of discipline and failure? Do the risks of the medications justify the gains?
What role do societal pressures — academic, social, and technological — play in this debate? How does our relationship with technology factor into our approach to the use of cognitive stimulating medications?
Watch a CBS News segment called “Adderall U” featuring an interview with two students who take cognitive stimulants:
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